Demystifying the U.S. Citizenship Examination

One of the most dreaded aspects of the naturalization process is the citizenship english and civics exam. While it is one of the biggest exams of your life, it is not as big a feat as you think it is. Yes, you must study for it. Please do not wing it. However, with preparation and a good handle on the english language, it is a fairly easy challenge to overcome. I’ll also touch on exemptions that may apply to you if studying for the exam proves to be too difficult because of your own personal circumstances.

The Naturalization Examination

After submitting your Form N-400 naturalization application, you’ll do the biometrics (fingerprinting) at a USCIS office. The fingerprints allow for the USCIS to perform background checks on each naturalization applicant. Usually after the biometrics appointment it is a matter of waiting on the naturalization interview appointment. This is where the in-depth examination will take place. The naturalization examination includes the naturalization interview and the english and civics test.

The Interview

All naturalization applicants must appear for the interview in person. It is usually held at the local USCIS office, in the officer’s office. The officer will request your identification and place you under oath before beginning. The officer will review the application in detail. As the officer reviews the application and supporting documentation, it is customary for the officer to ask you to verify answers on the application. For example, your address, your phone number, your travel history and any other aspects of your background in the application. Many of these questions will focus on establishing eligibility for citizenship. For example, if your history reveals a good moral character issue then the officer will focus on this with follow up questions and a possible request for more evidence. Another example of a possible issue is extensive travel outside of the United States during which you spent more than half the time staying in a foreign country. This may lead to a presumption that you abandoned your permanent resident status. Therefore, it is important to look at your travel history and accurately calculate the amount of time you’ve spent outside of the United States.After the officer concludes this initial part of the interview, the officer then moves on to test your english and civics knowledge.

The ENGLISH And civics test

Pursuant to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), persons with permanent residence who are applying for citizenship must undergo an evaluation of their english proficiency and knowledge of United States history.

The English Test

The officer uses the results of the english test to determine whether you can understand, read, write and speak english proficiently. Your english does not have to be perfect. You just have to show you have understanding of simple english vocabulary and grammar. Therefore, you can make minor errors in spelling and pronunciation and still meet the english test requirement. It is important to ask the officer to repeat words for your better understanding should you have some difficulty hearing or making out an english word.

There are three aspects of the english test, which are as follows:

  1. The Speaking Test: The english speaking test starts at the beginning of the interview. The officer will first place you under oath, which you must understand in english. Then as the officer examines the application, the officer will ask you questions about the information on your application. While the officer is determining your eligibility based on the information on the application, the officer is also determining whether you sufficiently understand the questions being ask and whether you are able to answer such questions in a way that makes sense in english. If you fail this aspects of the test the first time, then there is an opportunity for re-examination. However, the application will be denied if you are unable to understand the english spoken by the officer and if you are unable to articulate oral answers in english.
  2. The Reading Test: If you can read at least one out of three sentences in english, then the officer will determine that you’ve passed the reading test. One you’ve successfully read one of the sentences in english, then to test will end. In order to pass the test, you must be able to read the english sentence without extended pauses, without omitting or substituting some of the english words in the sentence and in a way that lets the officer know that you understand the sentence and in a way that lets the officer understand what you are reading. If you do not meet the standards set for the reading test, then you’ll likely fail it. There is an opportunity for re-examination.
  3. The Writing Test: You must write one least one sentence out of three in a way that the officer can understand to pass the writing test. Therefore, misspelling, punctuation, and capitalization of letters will not cause you to fail the written test. The officer will read an english sentence to you and you will write what the officer is dictating in english.The most important aspect of the the test is the meaning. If anything that is written interferes with the officer’s ability to understand the written english sentence and its english meaning, then this will lead to a failure. You’ll have three chances to get it right. Once you’ve successfully written one of the three sentences satisfactorily, then the test will end. The following errors will surely lead to a failure of the test: an illegible sentence, incomplete sentence, abbreviations of the dictated words or different words than those dictated. Of course, as with the other types of test. You’ll have the opportunity for re-examination.

The Civics Test

The civics test examines your knowledge and understanding of basic American history and government. This is not an exceedingly difficult examination. You can study one hundred sample questions on history and civics. You’ll be tested on a total of ten out of the one hundred at the examination. When you get six out of the ten correct, the officer will end the civics test.

Unless you fall under an exemption you must complete the english and civics test. However there are special considerations for applicants who are 65 and older and who have been here for at least 20 years. If you fall under the 65/20 special consideration, you’ll only need to study 20 out of the 100 civics and history questions. Then you’ll get 10 of those 20 possible questions on the civics test. There is also due consideration given those the officer thinks should get it based on a case by case basis. Due consideration allows the officer to phrase questions in a more understandable way, give more leeway to evaluating answers and choosing subject matters about which to ask on the civics test. When giving due consideration, the officer looks at the following factors

  • Age;​
  • Background;​
  • Level of education;​
  • Length of residence in the United States;​
  • Opportunities available and efforts made to acquire the requisite knowledge; and​
  • Any other relevant factors relating to the applicant’s knowledge and understanding

Opportunity for Re-examination After Failure

At the end of your naturalization exam, you’ll be given the results of your english and civics test. If you pass, and you are eligible for citizenship, then CONGRATULATIONS! Next stop, citizenship ceremony and oath. However, if you’ve failed all or parts of the exam, you can schedule a re-examination.

As with everything, try again if at first you don’t succeed. You will have the opportunity for re-examination on a single naturalization application. The re-examination takes place 60 to 90 days after the initial failure.The good news is that you will only be retested on the parts of the test that you failed initially. Therefore if you only failed the civics test, then you’ll only have to take the civics test again. The advantage here is you’ll have less to study for. Unfortunately, if you failed the entire test, you’ll have to be re-examined on the entire english and civics test again.

Exemptions from Tests

Pursuant to the Immigration and Nationality Act 312(b), you are exempt from some or all parts of the english and civics test if you fall under the following categories:

  1. Age 50 or older and resided in U.S. as an LPR for at least 20 years at time of filing: You’ll be exempt from the english test. However you must still do the civics test. You’ll have the option of doing the test in the language of your choice with an interpreter.
  2. Age 55 or older and resided in U.S. as an LPR for at least 15 years at time of filing: You’ll be exempt from the english test. However you must still do the civics test. You’ll have the option of doing the test in the language of your choice with an interpreter.
  3. Age 65 or older and resided in the U.S. as an LPR for at least 20 years at time of filing: You’ll be exempt from the english test. However you must still do the civics test by studying a possible pool of 20 specially designated questions. You’ll be given a total of 10 of those 20 questions and you’ll have the option of doing the test in the language of your choice with an interpreter.
  4. Medical Disability: You may be exempt from the english and civics test depending on the extent of the disability. Keep in mind that you must submit the Form N-648 with a physician’s certification of the disability. It is a form which must be completed in detail with evidence attached such as medical records. The statements of the physician explaining the disability must clearly relate the disability to the inability to complete part or all of the test. If it is not properly completed, the officer may reject or deny the N-648, which means you’ll have to do the test with the disability. It is important to work with your immigration attorney to make sure it is completed legibly and in detail.

NOTE: As always this is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. Consult an immigration attorney, like myself, for advice regarding your particular circumstances.

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